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How to Reduce Your Online Footprint

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Ever posted an image on the web and regretted it? Are recruiters finding unsavoury stuff that’s stopping you getting that new job? Perhaps someone has written an unsavoury article about you?

Luckily, there are a number of things we can do to significantly reduce our online footprint. Bear in mind that many types of information, such as vehicle records, tax assessments, property listing information, professional licenses, news articles, company registrations and court files cannot be removed from the internet. Most of these are ‘in the public interest’ and there is a legal right for this information to be made public. You cannot request them to be deleted or anonymised. Despite this, there is still a lot we can do to significantly reduce our digital footprint down to next to nothing.

Quick disclaimer: think through removing content from search engines and other websites carefully. Much of what I suggest below is permanent and cannot be undone, meaning, you will lose information, any marketable or commercial brand that you've developed online and, in many cases, you’ll lose the ability to recreate the account or profile using the same name or under the same email address as previously.

Also, you need to be aware of something called the ‘Streisand effect’. This is the concept of, by attempting to hide or remove a piece of information it actually has the unintended consequence of publicising it more widely! Following the steps below should help you avoid this but do bear in mind never to publicly request to remove content, always use private channels of communication where possible.

This is no quick fix. The process to remove content from the internet is lengthy and requires dedication. Think of it as a slow burner. If you are short on time, it might be worthwhile skipping straight to step 12 and getting the professionals in from the start.

How To Reduce Our Online Footprint

1. Audit the Internet

Sit down with a brew and a custard creme and trawl google for content relating to yourself.

  • Create an excel tracker to record what you find. The tracker is important because it can sometimes take months for search engines to investigate erasure requests and action them. You therefore need a way to track progress against the links you want removed.
  • Enable ‘Incognito Mode’ on your browser to prevent search engines sorting and filtering results based on previous search histories. Search for terms related to yourself such as; your name, nicknames, usernames, mobile phone and landline numbers, email addresses, social media handles and postal addresses. For every website you find which you’d prefer disappeared, record the URL in your excel tracker.
  • To assist in completing your tracker you should ‘dox’ (research) yourself. Methods to try are;
    • Normal Search Engines (incl. photo searches!)
    • DeepWeb and DarkWeb Search Engines
    • Social Media Websites
    • Reverse Phone Number Lookup
    • Reverse Photo Lookup
    • WhoIs Lookup
  • If you’re checking to see if a particular page has been removed or an image removed from a website, add “/?” to the end of the wed address URL. This will ensure you see the very latest version of the webpage.

2. Delete Accounts

If you want to disappear from the internet start by closing your online accounts. These should drop out of search engines in time (1-3 months). Some clever people at www.deseat.me have created an automated way to discover all accounts based on your email find them and then delete them all in one go!

This might be a great way to save time and it’s free! But before you delete your accounts, manually remove every last scrap of information on the profile or account and save it, or if you like, replace it with completely fictional information. This way in the time period while you’re waiting for it to be deleted, your real information won’t be publicly visible.

If you detect that even after using deseat.me things keep reappearing in search results, use a service like DeleteMe which automatically issues opt-outs and account removal requests on your behalf every 3 months so you can be sure that over time these will be fully removed!

3. Delete Specific Content

You may not want to delete your entire account but just a specific blog post or embarrassing photo. You can use the inbuilt functionalities of social media sites and other websites to delete specific content. If this functionality doesn’t exist or they refuse, go to step 4 below. As previously mentioned, be careful when contacting others to remove content, not to become a victim to the ‘Streisand effect’ and unwittingly propagate that information further. Only request directly from others when they are your friends who you can trust and always use private messaging, not posting on their public profile for example.

4. Contact Website Admins

Lookup the WHOIS information of the website in question to find out who owns the site. Write politely worded emails to the web admins requesting the removal or anonymisation of the content on the webpage. While you might be motivated by anger or fear, it’s important to remain calm and professional in these requests. By all means gently remind them of your legal rights but forcibly threatening legal action at this stage won’t win you any friends.

Include the justifications for removal – if no response is received within a fortnight, write a formal letter to the companies registered address. This can be found from the Companies House website in the UK by just searching the company name.

5. Update Social Media Privacy Settings

Set all privacy settings to be as restrictive as possible and ensure your profile is set not to show up in search engine results. This might take a few weeks to take effect. This should address everything you post going forward but what about historic stuff? Ensure you select the option to ‘Limit Old Posts’ which many social media sites now have. See this great guidance for detailed instructions on how to tighten up your privacy settings on popular social media sites!

6. Accounts / Content That Cannot Be Deleted

Some companies don’t allow you to delete your account as the content is not yours and is owned by them. There are a number of steps you can take to manage this;

  • Contact the appropriate company representative (such as the Data Protection Officer who’s contact details must be in their Privacy Notice by European law) or the website admin (by using the WhoIS function). They should at the very least rename your account to anonymise it.
  • If your current email address alludes to your name or your identity in any way, then change it. Create a new email which is completely disassociated with you.
  • Submit a formal Erasure Request (also known as a ‘Right to be Forgotten’ request) under the new European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Issue it in writing or over the phone to the company who owns the website in question. This is a legal right you have by residing in the EU. You don’t need to be an EU citizen and all companies processing personal data of people in Europe must adhere to it (including the UK, even after Brexit!). It formally requests the delete of certain digital content and unless specific exemptions apply, such as the data being legally required or if the company has legitimate grounds to hold it for a set period of time (and it is still within that ‘retention’ period), then the data must be deleted.

7. Complain to the Supervisory Authority

If your GDPR request is not processed within 30 working days, then you may have grounds to complain to the local Supervisory Authority (e.g. the Information Commissioners Office in the UK). They take complaints of this nature pretty seriously so this should get things moving pretty fast.

8. Opt-out of People Search Engines

Alot of search results are generated by data aggregation websites that collate data on people. Great for private investigators and recruiters, but not for the privacy conscious. Go to this link to opt out in one fell swoop for free!

9. Create Positive Content

90% of Google traffic is generated by the first page alone with only 10% of people making it past the first page, so, we can use this to our advantage! If you can push the negative listings down only onto the second page then you’re already making great progress to hiding any negative content. Using personal websites, blogs, resume/CV sites, professional networking sites, etc. we can create a lot of favourable material quite quickly. When performed correctly, this can be highly effective.

10. Delete Search History

Does it creep you out that google has a complete record of everything you have ever searched for? If it does, there is way to delete it all forever. Bear in mind, you can’t ever delete it from your service providers records as they are legally obliged to record it for the purposes of crime prevention and national security but this shouldn’t be too much of a concern unless you’re planning a bank heist or terrorist attack.

To delete your search history from google, go to:

Google > My Account > My Activity > Delete Activity By > All Time > Delete > OK

You can do similar for other search engines such as Bing and Yahoo, just google it.

11. Setup a Google Alert for your name and email address

It will alert you when new public material containing your chosen search terms appears online (e.g. your name). This is important because once we’ve gone through the laborious process of searching for everything manually, we don’t want to have to do it again anytime soon. This way we can setup the alerts and then get on with our lives!

12. Use an Online Brand Manager

If you’re serious about cleaning up your online presence, there are companies out there that offer this as a professional service. At the time of writing www.brandyourself.com is considered the best online brand management service by review sites topseos.com and toptenreviews. You may ask “why recruit a company like this when you’ve laid out all the steps to do it myself?” Five reasons;

1. Time – as already discussed, this is time consuming and needs constant chasing and management.
2. Legislative Expertise – the professionals know exactly what laws and regulation they can use to get what is required.
3. Emotional Distance - where companies or website owners are difficult and uncooperative, you may end up getting angry or frustrated resulting in pissing off the very people you want onside to remove the content.
4. Reach – they are likely able to remove you from the deep web whereas the average joe won’t have the technical know-how to do this. You therefore get a much more thorough job being done than if you were to do this yourself.
5. Agreements – they may even have formal agreements in place with data source providers which will open doors for them that we may never be able to do.

13. If US-based, File a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act)

For particularly uncooperative websites you may want to consider emailing DMCA@nameofthesite.com to file something called a DMCA. If it comes to this, you may want to take legal advice first as misrepresenting a request like this can get you into hot water. Take the DMCA to the ISP hosting the website in question and they should be able to get the content removed.

14. Emotionally Prepare Yourself

There will be some stuff you just can’t get removed. It might be that the website hosting the content you want removed is based in a country out of the legal reach of UK or European law or the website is simply operated by criminals who refuse to comply to laws. When we post stuff online we are in essence signing away our ownership rights so, sometimes legitimately, companies are extremely reluctant to allow the removal of their intellectual property. Make sure you have emotionally prepared yourself for the possibility that some stuff may not be removed.

I hope you’ve found that valuable. Got any questions on the above or how to reduce your online footprint?

Fire away!

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